A study of the diplomatic policies of William H. Seward relative to the French intervention in Mexico, 1861-1867



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Secretary of State William H. Seward was one of the truly great Secretaries of State. The beginning of his term was marked by an aggressive, reckless view regarding United States foreign policy. Once he viewed the foreign policy of the United States with more perspective, his alternative passive policy served extremely well. Napoleon III’s scheme from the beginning was to establish a Latin American empire and check the growth and influence of the United States. The suspension of debts owed to England, France, and Spain was merely an excuse used by France and Spain to justify intervention. Mexico had been troubled by internal strife and civil war, thereby leaving it impossible to pay its debts. France could not have hoped to secure the monetary debts owed to it in Mexico’s economic condition. Regardless of French intentions this scheme points out the difficulty a nation might encounter in an effort to secure debts by military force. The foreign policy of Mr. Seward at first was intended to percent intervention but failed due to the intentional problems of the United States, being itself involved in the Civil War. This war left the United States powerless to oppose the French scheme to establish a European monarchy in Mexico. Once the intervention began, Mr. Seward pursued a course of moderation in dealing with the French occupation of Mexico, yet his foreign policy had to prevent French recognition of the Confederacy, prevent a war with France, quieten domestic opposition to the French scheme, and leave the way open for a more opportune time in which to demand French withdrawal. Mr. Seward chartered a narrow course between remaining silent and giving protest to France. On the one hand silence might encourage France and protest might bring retaliation. Mr. Seward’s policy was founded on prudence and dictated by common sense. Gently and politely Secretary Seward informed France its actions were disapproved by the United States but never to the point where he gained the active disfavor of France. Mr. Seward’s policy was determined by his expectation that Mexico would be eventually conquered by immigration and a war with Mexico would be senseless, in view of the depleted United States Treasury. Commercial expectations were also considerations in Mr. Seward’s foreign policy. He believed the United States would need France as a friend with which to deal commercially, so the United States should not instigate a war with France. The Civil War’s end removed the greatest danger to the United States, but Secretary Seward’s policy of neutrality remained unchanged. Mr. Seward convinced France the United States still remained neutral, but in a more decided tone, he let the French know their actions were becoming irritating to the United States people and Congress might direct by law the foreign policy f the United States. Refusing to heed the passions of the United States people and congress, Secretary Seward skillfully used public opinion as pressure to induce France to remove her troops from Mexico. France removed its troops in 1867 due to political conditions in Europe, the skill of Mr. Seward’s diplomacy, and the spirit of the Mexican people, and shortly afterwards, Ferdinand Maximillian was captured and executed.



William H. Seward, Secretary of State, United States foreign policy